Juventus and Benfica Could Finally Make People Take Europa League Seriously

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2014

Juventus have the look of a side determined to reach the Europa League final on home turf
Juventus have the look of a side determined to reach the Europa League final on home turfValerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Later this week, the Europa League quarter-finals will be played out to their climax. In truth, we have a good idea of three who will occupy the last four; Juventus, Benfica and Basel all hold strong hands ahead of the return matches. Only Porto and Sevilla truly present us with a tight situation.

So those who wish to ignore it can, continuing to belittle a competition that has provided its share of drama and gripping fixtures. Porto's win over Napoli, Juve and Fiorentina's tense slug-out and the extraordinary Seville derby have all held the attention of those prepared to give the Europa League a go.

They can still deride it and some probably still will, even after an excellent edition of the tournament this season has reached its finale in the evocative surrounds of the Juventus Stadium—and maybe they will even after next season, when the eventual winners will receive the golden ticket of a Champions League place for the 2015/16 campaign.

Carlos Tevez carries a real threat for Juve.
Carlos Tevez carries a real threat for Juve.Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Then again, maybe it could be different this time. Juve alone, inarguably one of the greatest sides on the continent, have already given the Europa League the greatest pep since its 2009 metamorphosis. The venue (a key pillar of their current renaissance) has surely weighed as much on their clear desire to win the competition as their competitive spirit, with a visible difference in their approach and that of previous Champions League demotees in past years, including Manchester United and Manchester City.

One suspects, given the strength of the Serie A champions and the palpable atmosphere in their new home, that Juve reaching the final would be a different proposition to Sporting Clube de Portugal's presence in the 2005 UEFA Cup final at their own Estadio Jose Alvalade.

Nine years ago, the places that locals couldn't give away became the hottest ticket in town and then went back to being nothing again, as CSKA Moscow spoiled the party. It is harder to imagine the same fate befalling Juve, with the considerable physical, emotional and technical resources at Antonio Conte's disposal.

One opponent, however, could give them a run for their money—last season's losing finalists, Benfica. Jorge Jesus' team have recovered in some style from the heartbreaking end to last season, which saw them blow a treble with stoppage-time defeats to Porto and Chelsea, before falling in the Taca de Portugal final to modest Vitoria Guimaraes.

By the end of that run, the Lisbon side were a shambles, with star striker Oscar Cardozo shoving Jesus on the pitch after the Guimaraes defeat. So it's extraordinary now that they're in the hunt for a quadruple, as they face semi-finals of both domestic cups, both against Porto.

When they were preparing to face Tottenham for the first leg of the pair's Europa League tie in mid-March, Jesus' team had conceded only one goal in their previous 16 matches in all competitions. It was a phenomenal achievement, even allowing for the drop-off in quality between continental and domestic opponents. Their closest rivals at home, Porto and Sporting, were among those shut out by the red wall in that sequence.

Benfica will not  be short of support in their Europa League quest.
Benfica will not be short of support in their Europa League quest.Michael Steele/Getty Images

These are two genuine giants of the European game, a pair of clubs that have contested 14 European Cup/Champions League finals between them. Only four of those finals, incidentally, ended in victory; two for Benfica, in their 1960s pomp, and two for Juve in the closing stanza of the 20th century.

Let's not talk about history, though. Let's talk about the here and now. The midfield battle would be bone-jarring, even minus the departed Nemanja Matic, with Enzo Perez ready to battle the mighty Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal. That's without considering the mouthwatering prospect of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente against Ezequiel Garay and Luisao.

The plan of the Europa League format was always to bridge the gap between the Champions League and the rest. Now, we could have a showpiece final to make good on that idea.